Schooling’s False Promises. A Review of Fredrik deBoer’s “The Cult of Smart” (St. Martin’s Press, 2020)

What major federal policy has every president from Lyndon Johnson to Barak Obama agreed on? Answer: Advancing educational opportunity as a path to societal equality. They may have differed on how to expand schooling, but not that it was a goal to be achieved in order to reduce social inequality. Why then have the results not lived up to the promise? The answer is simple according to Fredrik deBoer: schooling can never produce social equality––not because we don’t spend enough or because teachers aren’t good enough. It’s because not all people are academically talented.

Marshaling studies that expose the raw underbelly of schooling’s failures on top of insights from his personal experience as a teacher, and capping that off with a measure of behavioral genetics, deBoer concludes, “as long as our education system creates winners, it will also create losers.”

The problem with those seeking equality of results from schooling deBoer asserts is that that goal is built on a myth of equal inherent ability––the idea that each child’s mind is a blank slate capable of being filled with the necessary knowledge. When children don’t succeed, therefore, people either blame teachers or the schools or both.

deBoer dismisses the notion that source of schools’ failures is racial and gender differences. Differences of potential between groups are insignificant, he asserts, but within each group there is great variation. Some kids are just not cut out to succeed academically.

While deBoer relies on a variety of sources to justify his analysis, few would deny that that there is a broad variation of academic talent within any ethnic or social group. The conclusion that politicians and educational reformers refuse to accept, however, is that a large proportion of the variation in academic achievement is “permanently outside the hands of schools and teachers.”

Where Liberals and Conservatives Agree

DeBoer doesn’t see much difference between conservatives and liberals in terms of the (false) hopes they place on schooling. He worries that economically privileged liberals––more so than conservatives––are resistant to coming to terms with the fact that by passing their genes on to their children they make it harder for those beneath them to advance.

Preaching schooling as a means to economic opportunity for the disadvantaged allows wealthy parents to ignore the fact that they are part of an aristocracy of the talented and that their status represents a barrier to children born of less academically talented parents. The more schooling is based on academic achievement, deBoer tells us, the poorer a job it does of social leveling.

If schooling can’t solve societal inequality what should it be doing? As an avowed Marxist, deBoer wants American society to undergo a total transformation to a socialist utopia, but until that happens, he offers a number of short-term proposals to do justice to the “untalented” and undercut our false hopes for schooling as the means to economic equality. These include two measures that run contrary to universally supported policies of the recent past: loosening public school standards and allowing students as young as 12 to drop out of school. He would also provide universal after school care in addition to universal childcare at a cost of hundreds of billions annually, although he admits all these “reforms” will have trouble gaining adherents.

Fredrik deBoer’s Marxist Alternative

DeBoer’s trust in Marxism leads him astray in understanding the role schooling has played in American society over the past one hundred plus years. Universal public education was not implemented to provide a right for all children to learn as he suggests, but rather to Americanize the large immigrant population that had flooded our shores over the last decades of the 19th century.

Public education (k-12) had little connection to employment until after World War II when an educated workforce was needed to continue the momentum brought about by the mobilization to defeat the Axis Powers. That led to a major expansion of the number of higher education slots. Thus, while my mother got a master’s degree at the State College for Teachers in Albany in 1963, three years later, when I enrolled in a graduate program there, it was now the State University of New York at Albany on a new campus with a vastly enlarged curricula.

The expansion of higher education from the 1960s on fed the growth of the public sector, creating employment openings for blacks and women who hitherto had few opportunities to use a college degree. Higher education growth, however, inevitably led to over expansion as politicians from both parties continued to demand public schools prepare more and more children for college. Expecting almost all young people go to college has had a detrimental effect both on colleges and the workplace. Colleges have succumbed to political pressure to increase graduation rates by lowering academic standards. That has hurt graduates in the market place as more and more employers demand advanced degrees in order to identify applicants with necessary knowledge and skills.

DeBoer is correct that academic talent is linked to economic status, but a missing ingredient in his analysis is motivation. Children of immigrants have historically done well, while the recent college admissions bribery scandal suggests a percentage of upper middle class children are opting out of the competition.

Variation also follows college graduates into the work place. The academically talented don’t all succeed and those with other skill sets, such as leadership, initiative, and perseverance enable those not at the top academically to be successful economically and career wise. The biggest lacuna in deBoer’s vision, however, is his notion that merit should be set aside in the name of a doing justice to those who are not academically talented.

He portrays a socialist utopia that resembles a sci/fi world where robots do all the work and people lounge around doing artistic things like composing music and painting landscapes. This is based on his belief that scarcity is a thing of the past. Of course, deBoer came to that conclusion before COVID-19, but even without factoring in the impact of the pandemic as evidence for how thin a margin the world’s most advanced economy rests on, only an academic who hasn’t spent a day working on a farm, in a factory or policing a crime-ridden neighborhood would assert we have reached a point where we have enough for everyone if we’d just be willing to share.

America’s 21st century economic status reflects technological advances from steam engines to gasoline powered motors, from the assembly line to robotics, from microscopic discoveries to nanotechnology, and, of course, thanks to computers which keep rewarding society with opportunities to make work more productive and while less time need be spent on the mundane. In a society without competition based on merit where everyone’s basic needs would be met by some mysterious process, there would be no incentive to do work of any kind. Evidence of the problem are people who refuse to go back to jobs that pay less than the government is sending them.

If deBoer’s analysis is correct that schooling cannot accomplish the kind of leveling we desire, equalizing academic placement and its subsequent economic rewards, do we as a society give up the notion of equality? If that’s the alternative then most people would stick with a flawed academic meritocracy, but of course there’s another choice: continue to grow the economy such that other paths exist to the good life.

It’s interesting that deBoer doesn’t mention sports or entertainment––two highly remunerative career paths where intelligence plays a role, but not necessarily academic intelligence. Entrepreneurship offers another avenue. While not every young person hoping to become the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs will reach that level, hundreds of start-ups have emerged in recent years as the capabilities of a computer-based society reach into new crevices of our complex world. Israel, for example, has been labeled “start up nation” as entrepreneurs have produced systems to extract water from air and enable self-driving cars. A factor in Israel’s success has been attributed to mandatory military service before college, suggesting something other than academic aptitude can play a role in motivating young people to create solutions to human kind’s endless supply of medical, economic and social needs.

The message I’d send parents is to downplay deBoer’s insistence that academic success is more and more the only ticket to economic well-being by reminding them that a growing standard of living has been capitalism’s gift to the world, including a reduction in poverty in the “third-world” in recent decades. While deBoer emphasizes the negative impact on young people who feel compelled to participate in the academic rat race and labels most work demeaning, the list of choices people have for employment today is so much greater than ever before. Smart is good, but free and unrestricted is just as good, if not better.

Are Billionaires the Problem?

Tara Isabella Burton, a columnist for the Religious News Service, wants to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to attack the free enterprise system that produced billionaires like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey. (Washington Post, May 17, 2020, B4) She would blame the conditions that created the most productive economic engine the world had ever seen with the lowest unemployment in half a century for requiring assistance of billionaires in fighting the virus.

The price of the freedoms we enjoy in the U.S. Burton asserts is that one in six children grow up in poverty, schools are unequally funded, and poor adults have healthcare issues. Even without pointing out that conditions in countries that value the collective good over individual rights are much, much worse for the majority than in the U.S.––vide Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela––Burton must ignore the positives our system has provided its citizenry in order to focus on the negatives.

She doesn’t mention that life expectancy in the U.S. has increased steadily and was at 78.87 in 2018 up EIGHT years from 1970. She doesn’t mention that poverty is never an obstacle keeping academically talented young people out of college and on a path to the middle class. She doesn’t mention that senior citizens are healthier by far than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, or that medical care has enabled cancer patients to live many years longer than just a generation ago.

Instead Burton relies on the language of the old Left. Telling us that we “worship” individual billionaires, and that the “collective good” has been sacrificed on the myth of the bootstrapper, and that “our obsession with freedom leaves behind our most vulnerable.” She also joins the media chorus claiming social conditions and an inept federal government are responsible for making the pandemic “so dire.”

Au contraire, Ms. Burton. Measuring the country’s response to the pandemic is as useful an exercise as the models estimating how many would have died if we did nothing. There’s no standard against which we can compare how we’ve done except to say we weren’t ready, we made mistakes, and yet we rallied and we are winning the battle. A vaccine might not be available by the end of the year, yet in record time the American manufacturing community provided life-saving equipment while the scientific community paved the way to creating a vaccine faster than for any other crisis in human history.

I would venture that in no country on Planet Earth are billionaires less admired than in the U.S. where the owner of a diner, a dairy farm or a bookstore feels just as important to society as the founders of Twitter or PayPal. We accept the existence of billionaires because we know the price we would have to pay of preventing people from rising that far above their inherent individual value would be the loss of the opportunity to rise out of poverty, to be elected to high office, or follow one’s dream career be that ballet dancer, special ed teacher or sports star. It’s a price Americans are not willing to pay because we know society as a whole benefits when each of us is responsible in large part for our successes and our failures. That’s what makes us Americans.

Socialism: The Impossible Dream. A review of Bernard K. Johnpoll’s 1981 study, subtitled, “The Rise and Demise of the American Left*”

I was fortunate to have taken a class with Professor Johnpoll in the 1970s when I was a graduate student at the University at Albany. He was sui generis––a cigar smoking, iconoclastic, child of Communists who admired people who flirted with the Left while despite concluding that their dreams can never be achieved.

Why never? The conundrum socialists have been unable to solve for two hundred years is how to get from present circumstances to the “cooperative commonwealth.” Further, they have not and never will reach a consensus on what the cooperative commonwealth looks like. Each person has his own vision of utopia, which makes it easy for the leaders of the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions to get away with calling their un-cooperative societies socialism and imposing their totalitarian rule on their subjects.

In The Impossible Dream, Johnpoll dissects the history of the socialist leaders, movements, and organizations in the U.S. from the early nineteenth century to the 1970s. Based on extensive use of primary and secondary sources, he documents his thesis that these organizations and movements were bound to fail despite their high ideals.

The Long History of Protesting Capitalism

In the early days of industrial capitalism in England and the United States people chafed at the negative side effects of the “industrial revolution”––the lack of restraints on working conditions that chewed up people in the name of profit.

Not that pre-industrial societies lacked poverty or suffering, but what prevented the rise of reform movements in that era was an absence of a clear path to a better world. Once technology, starting with steam engines, introduced the possibility of a world where you were not tied to your previous station in life, reformers and reform movements sprouted like dandelions.

The primary critics of early capitalism were craftsmen whose skills were becoming irrelevant in the face of a new competitive environment where products could be produced in large numbers and sold for less than hand-crafted items. Combining religious images like the golden rule with visions of how industry could be re-organized, Robert Owen and others preached the coming of a society built around cooperative communities. Although the model communities Owen and others set up invariably failed––and did so very quickly by the way, they planted seeds which others sowed in the fertile fields created by early capitalism’s destructive excesses.

The goal of socialism––whether Marxian, Christian, or communitarian, is to take over ownership of the “means of production” and put it in the hands of the workers. The problem socialists have never solved, according to Johnpoll, is how one gets there. Nowhere was that more evident in the reformers’ dealings with the working class.

Labor Unions versus Socialism

In the nineteenth century, while reformers were preaching their individual variants of the total reformation of society, workers who couldn’t wait for the arrival of the cooperative commonwealth, began to form labor unions. For a time the interests of socialists and unionists were allied because owners backed by the police and legal system of the state resisted––often by force––all efforts of workers to organize.

Once the unionists demands began to be translated into law, however, their leaders broke with the socialists. When he expelled the socialists from his American Federation of Labor in 1903, Gompers said, “I want to tell you, Socialists, that I have studied your philosophy; read your works upon economics, and . . . I have heard your orators and watched the work of your movement the world over . . . Economically you are unsound, socially you are wrong, industrially you are an impossibility.”

For Gompers and others, socialists wanted to revolutionize all of society, while unionists were satisfied with improving the present-day lot of their members. This caused huge problems for socialists––some eschewed ameliorative gains while others saw reforms as the path to God’s kingdom on earth. Either way they failed again and again to win over the working class.

Socialist leaders, most of whom did not come from the working class, had an even harder time when it came to the problem of whether or not to participate in the electoral process. Some felt socialism could be brought about democratically, while others felt the owning class would never allow that to happen and only through an uprising by the working people of the world could a revolution that overthrew capitalism be accomplished.

Throw in conflicts born of ethnic differences and leaders personalities and you have a history of organizations being formed, making temporary gains, and then failing apart. It happened over and over again. Each generation of leaders thought this time will be different: this time the workers will vote for us or respond to our call for a general strike or join our socialist labor union. When that didn’t happen, they always had fellow socialists to blame.

Johnpoll clearly admires the reformers of the nineteenth century more than those of the twentieth with a few exceptions. Early reformers didn’t have experience to guide them and they paved the way for positive changes in society once social opinion or historical circumstance convinced the political party in power to implement reforms. They didn’t achieve their dream, but we take for granted many of the reforms they called for, from an end to child labor to unemployment insurance, from compulsory education to the right to collective bargaining.

Are Today’s Democrats advocating Socialism?

In recent years, the rhetoric in the Democratic Party in favor of some form of socialism has escalated. Bernie Sanders came close to winning the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2016 and remains one of the favorites in the 2020 race. This time around nearly the entire cast of presidential candidates is advocating one or more programs that amount to increased governmental control over various aspects of the production and distribution of goods and services. Health care and the environment are the most prominent areas where socialistic policies have won favor with the Party’s activist base, but except for Sanders none of the others seem willing to go full bore and denounce capitalism.

From a historical perspective what the Democrats are moving towards is more like the system that ruled the Soviet Union than the cooperative commonwealth envisioned by nineteenth century social philosophers––including Karl Marx. The Soviet Union was a totally statist society in which the state apparatus controlled everything, including personal choices in many areas. (There was nothing communistic about it.) We’re not there yet, but that’s the direction we’re heading in––namely, the sacrifice of personal liberties on behalf of the “common good.”

The problem is who defines what’s good and proper. In the Soviet Union, it was the Communist Party. In the US today, the federal bureaucracy has assumed the responsibility for defining specifics of vaguely wording legislation, often going against the will of the current chief executive.

The fact that we still elect the president is a critical difference between the U.S. and the Soviet Union because it offers the possibility that the power of the state can be restrained. Yet, to the average citizen, there’s little difference when waiting to get an appointment with the VA hospital in the U.S. or the poor quality of socialized medicine in the former USSR.

Ultimately, most reformers are totalitarians. They don’t like conditions in the present. Fine. They see a better world. Fine. They want to impose their vision of a better world on everyone else. Not so fine. We only have to look at Russia, China, and Cuba to understand what happens to the individual when reformers grab the power of the state. The individual becomes acted upon, not an actor. That’s the danger we’re facing in the U.S. in 2019. Reading Johnpoll’s Impossible Dream can help elucidate why the future world painted by today’s reformers is impossible to achieve no matter how appealing the picture.

Coda: Marx’s scientific socialism predicted the most advanced capitalist societies would be the first to undergo a conversion to socialism. Clearly that prediction was wrong. Lack of economic development where the elements of a capitalist system are non-existent or weak, is often coupled with a non-democratic political system, while in the US, where democracy while not perfect, is nevertheless deeply embedded, capitalism has raised the standard of living of the entire society even under the restraints of social legislation. Like democracy, capitalism is the best option available on a list of imperfect choices.

* An earlier version of this review was posted on Amazon and Goodreads in 2014.

 

Is there such a thing as Democratic Socialism?

There are only two types of socialists: those who believe socialism will come by revolution––the uprising of the working class––and those who believe socialism can be voted in. The problem comes after socialism arrives. Then little distinguishes the policies that are advanced and the means by which they are implemented.

In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party implemented its policies by force, using the police and military to get people to do the party’s bidding. There were no individual rights in the Soviet Union, except for the Party’s top leaders of course. In Argentina, where socialism was voted in, the police and military have become the means by which a socialist dictatorship remains in power. Today people have numbers written on their arms to show their place in the food lines. Echoes of the Holocaust.

So, is there such a thing as democratic socialism? The answer is no. There are European countries that have adopted some socialistic policies, but none are truly socialist societies. Private ownership of wealth and property cannot be allowed to exist under socialism. Corporations and small businesses may operate under severe restrictions in Europe, but they exist in all European countries. In a truly socialist society any attempt to restore capitalism even by electoral means has to be crushed by force. Take Cuba as another example where the people do not have political liberty and where private ownership is extremely limited.

What would “democratic socialism” mean in America? Loss of individual liberties in the name of the society as a whole. Loss of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion. Those losses would not be labeled as such. They would be announced as great accomplishments for the “working class,” but they are inevitable.

The Amazon Deal Reveals What Socialism Means to Ocasio-Cortez and her Ilk

By now everyone knows that Amazon decided not to go ahead with a plan to build a new headquarters (H2) in New York City due to local political opposition. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez applauded the decision as a victory for New York, which gives us an opportunity to understand how her kind of socialism works.

Rep. AO-C suggested New York was saving $3 billion which could be used for teachers salaries and other benefits. Good idea? Well, it would be except there is no $3 billion. New York was not giving Amazon $3 billion to build in New York, they were getting a $3 billion tax break. So much for the value of a degree from Boston University in economics. She doesn’t know the difference between a tax break and a gift.

But you may be saying, a $3 billion tax break is still a bad idea. It’s too much. Except Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio forgot to explain that the $3 billion tax break was a deduction from the $30 billion Amazon promised to pay into New York City and New York State coffers. In other words Ocasio-Cortez refused $27 billion for New York because Amazon wasn’t going to have to pay the full $30 billion they promised. Does that make any sense?

But what does that have to do with socialism? Socialism is about putting in power representatives of “the working class” who will decide what’s best for everyone. It’s not about redistributing the wealth. That’s a myth. It’s not about giving everyone a job. That’s also a myth. Those are the things they say it means, but history tells us that never happens, and it never can.

They rejected Amazon because they were going to get a 10% tax break. As a result, they threw away 25,000 good paying jobs––jobs that will now go to people in other parts of the country––and lost the multiplier effect on the local economy in terms of people buying housing, home furnishings and appliances, clothing, electronics, going out to eat, etc.

Socialism is about making ideological decisions at the expense of the needs of the citizenry. Amazon is big. Amazon is bad. Socialism is inherently undemocratic. Elections are used to gain power followed by corruption of the electoral process in order to retain power. If Americans want to understand how socialism would work in America, we’ve just seen a perfect example.

Masculinity Under Attack

Gillette, the makers of shaving products, is trying to win over millennial and younger males by attacking masculinity. A recent video advertisement disparages the notion that boys should be boys, and Gillette is not alone. Much of the entertainment and news industry follow the same formula: white men, business owners (capitalists), and the United States are the source of the world’s problems. All women, all non-whites, and all people whose sexual preferences are not heterosexual are victims.

Beyond the stupidity of alienating millions of existing customers, Gillette’s throwing in with the victimized political movement should serve as a warning sign. The price of overthrowing nature with regard to gender can only lead to the decay of the overall society, to the undermining of natural human attributes––the desire to compete, the desire to achieve, the desire for comfort, and the desire for shared progress.

There is a necessary biological difference between males and females, and I’m not referring solely to the reproductive function.

The vast majority of male children approach life differently. They interact with the physical world differently. They learn differently. That is not to say there are not males who, for biological reasons, have feminine tendencies, which society should accept and not ridicule, but they are the exception.

One danger of a feminized culture is that normal males will believe themselves the source of pain to women and minorities and try to become what they are not. That is what Gillette is preaching and it must be challenged.

Victimology is being taught at all levels of our educational system. Why is it so prevalent even in elementary school? One reason is the power that is gained by women and racial minorities. Today minorities and women receive favored treatment in admissions and hiring throughout American society. Today to be a woman means you are automatically favored to win an election if your opponent is a male. Yet women and minorities continue to claim they are disadvantaged, treated unfairly and damaged by their status.

Sadly, those practicing victimology are hypocrites for affiliating themselves with real victims. Real victims, such as women and gays in Muslim countries, are ignored while phony victims use their victim status to gain unfair advantage in our society. Black Africans are also ignored victims of Islam––in the Sudan and Nigeria for example, but Muslims in the U.S. and Europe see the benefit of claiming victim status and attempt to join the pity party under the label of “intersectionality” the notion that all victims have in common the same oppressors.

Parents must challenge teachers who make boys feel their natural boyish behavior is bad. They must not allow their children to attend colleges where victimology is the underlying educational philosophy. The Ivies are among the major offenders in that regard. We must stop making donations to such institutions.

Companies like Gillette and its parent Proctor and Gamble must be boycotted to show the majority of Americans oppose the victim ideology that makes natural maleness an evil, and candidates who run on victim platforms must be defeated at the polls.

There are bad men in the world, but there are also bad women. There are bad whites, but there are also bad Blacks, bad Hispanics, bad Asians, and bad Christians, bad Jews, etc. Bad actors are not confined to one group and membership in any group should not automatically consign someone to possessing certain characteristics. That is the kind of thinking we fought against 50 years ago when we attacked segregation and opened the doors to women and blacks as equals.

The United States is still the land of opportunity––a beacon and a model to the rest of the world. That status, however, is under attack by practitioners of victimology, by those who would repress masculinity, and by those who would replace free speech and free enterprise with constrained speech and socialism. The war is escalating. Who will win will be determined by each of us.

Socialism’s Biggest Failure: Israel

Unless you’re an Israel scholar, you may not know that most of the founders of the modern state of Israel were socialists. The system they put in place in 1948 was based on socialist principles, reflecting both the experience many had growing up on kibbutzim or activism in socialist organizations in Europe.

The founders created an economic system dominated by the public sector, which to a certain extent fit the needs of the nascent country at the time. By taxing private enterprise heavily, they sought to build a social infrastructure, including government buildings as well as roads and housing, hoping to handle the massive flow of immigrants into the country.

Labor unions were especially strong which meant Israel’s factories were inefficient in relation to competitors elsewhere. Food and public transportation were heavily subsidized. By the 1980s, Israel was crippled with run-away inflation, mounting national debt and a lack of foreign reserves. Socialism was a failure.

How did that society evolve into the economic miracle of today? In 1985, Prime Minister Shimon Peres, one of the heroes of the War of Independence, convinced the Labor Party to accept drastic measures including deep cuts in public spending, freezing public sector salaries, and cancelling automatic salary adjustments for unionized workers. Further, responsibility for setting interest rates was transferred from the Treasury, which used the printing press to win political support for the government to an apolitical Bank of Israel. Import duties designed to protect local businesses were slashed and Peres began to lower taxes.

In 2003, the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, added crucial components to the transition from the failed socialist system to free market capitalism, when he reduced social spending, cut taxes, raised the pension age, and sold state assets to the private sector, even the El Al airline.

The result? Today Israel is one of, if not the fastest growing economies in the developed world. Inflation is 0.4%, unemployment is 4%, and the shekel is one of the world’s strongest currencies. Although poverty has not been eliminated, it is less than it was in 1985 and per capita income is about to pass both Britain and Japan. Israel imports more than $100 billion annually and has a trade surplus––something the U.S. has been unable to achieve for decades.

Socialist policies nearly brought about the country’s ruin. They undermined incentive and ingenuity. Today, Israel is known for its technical ingenuity. That could not have taken place under the socialist model where all property belonged to the state and personal initiative was neither encouraged nor rewarded.

Those who argue socialism can’t be judged by its implementation in places like Russia, Cuba or Venezuela, have a hard case to make that it can work anywhere given its failure in Israel where the entire leadership of the country was fully committed to it and gave it nearly forty years to work before throwing in the towel.